At a certain point, the Cupeño stopped looking back.

This land is mine: The Cupeño removal of 1903, part four of four

Manuella Sibimoat
  • Manuella Sibimoat

The wagons came at sunrise. Over 40 teams passed through the barb-wired gate and lurched up the dirt road to Kupa like a giant snake. They came to drive the Cupeño from their land. Stacked wooden boxes suggested some were ready for the move. Others fought the urge to flee.

All through the night, women in long dresses chanted dirges around campfires. The commotion — and knowing they must leave their ancestral home forever — made sleep impossible.

By the time the teamsters arrived, each deputized and “armed with a rifle on the seat and a brace of revolvers” (Union), several Cupeño families already left for Pala in carts and old spring wagons. Francisco “Pancho” Chutnicut, wearing a dusty silk top-hat, watched in silence as the first four-horse team headed out with his family’s possessions.

Walkers left early for a head start on the main caravan. According to the San Diego Union, eight others went even earlier, on May 9, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the best pieces of property at the reservation.

Many Cupeño went to pray one last time in the St. Francis chapel, on a knoll northwest of the village. As lay priest Ambrosio Ortega met them at the door, sounds from the village a quarter mile away grew louder: barking dogs, neighing horses, clanking of stoves and cooking pots on wagonbeds. The loading had begun.

“We were scared,” recalled Roscinda Nolasquez, then age 11. “We didn’t know what was going on. We saw old people running back and forth. We cried, too, because we were afraid.”

After chapel, people went down the hill to the humble cemetery of wooden crosses and the crematory mound across the road.

The Cupeño weren’t just leaving a village, they were leaving their universe — and the “second world” of their ancestors, all the way back to the “first people,” with whom they shared palpable bonds.

Every rock, every tree reverberated with links to the past. Things were where they had always been: the sights, the smells, the seasonal changes, even lovers’ hiding places. And everything had a name.

The Cupeño must abandon the black oaks up at Eagle’s Nest, where they harvested acorns in the fall, always leaving enough so their ancestors, and even the animals, could have their time of gathering.

They must leave the medicine rock, where legend said a woman turned to stone, lightning split it in two, and it became a powerful source of healing.

They must leave permanent homes, many of two-foot-thick adobe, with thatched roofs and open-beam ceilings. And they must leave nature’s pharmacy of healing herbs: rose hips for a cold; tea from elderberry blossoms for a fever.

And they must leave the hot springs, where one acre-foot a day rose in bubbles and wreaths of steam wafted over 140-degree water. This was where the Cupeño slept in winter to keep warm. To them the sulphur smelled of health.

While the natives remained in the burial areas, as if refusing to leave, noises back at the village increased, as if the drivers were eager to hit the road.

“Most of the Indians had their own horses,” teamster Judd Tripp recalled. “Some had rigs…but most of the stuff they had to move, we moved.” Tripp hauled old Cayatan’s “great big round rocks” — stone mortars for grinding — on his two-horse rig. “But most of the Indians, they didn’t have enough to make a load.”

Many Cupeños refused aid. At one point Captain Sibimoat shouted: “We are not lame or blind, we can work. We don’t want help!”

Grant Wallace, covering the event for the San Francisco Bulletin, watched Jacinta Ortega heave books onto a bonfire: “spellers, arithmetics, poems, along with bows and arrows.” Asked why, she said, “now she hated white people, their religion, their books.”

More blaring noises, sun higher in the sky, heat rising: hammers tearing nails from lumber, lumber clacking on the wagons. The careful packing now mere piling on.

Inspector James Jenkins, in charge of the move, began the day shouting orders and cracking a rope like a whip. He rode out early with Josephine Babbitt, the popular schoolteacher, and Laura Cornelius. “I left the caravan in charge of the [drivers],” he told the Riverside Daily Press. The Cupeño, he said, “are peaceable as lambs. While regretting to leave their old home, they were perfectly willing to go.”

As teamsters chucked her household goods onto a wagon, Bearfoot Manuella Sibimoat became incensed. The 91-year-old woman shouted at Grant Wallace: “Here I will stay, even if I die, even if coyotes eat me.”

With that she turned and began a slow trudge up the hill, past the hot springs and granite boulders, toward the village’s guardian peaks — Eagle’s Nest, Squaw Mountain, and Rabbit House — high in the distance.

Just after 10:00 a.m., John Brown, the Cupeño attorney, waited in the lead wagon for Ambrosio Ortega to emerge from the chapel. When Ortega climbed on board, he took a last look, flicked the reins, and cried “Vamoose Pala.” About 25 wagons rolled out of Kupa.

Earlier that morning, Captain Sibimoat had breakfast with his wife, Ramona, and daughter Nieves. “We will go to Pala,” he told a reporter, “but I cannot say that we will stay.”

Two hours later, he watched teamsters rip down his wooden home and load it on a wagon. L.A. Herald: “He saw the demolition while standing under a nearby live oak and wiped an occasional tear with an old bandana handkerchief.”

The last to leave, Sibimoat uttered, “let them eat sand.”

The caravan headed north on the old Butterfield Stage route — today’s Highway 79, though much windier — skirting the east side of Palomar Mountain. The three-day, 50-plus-mile trip was mostly downhill, with a drop in altitude of 2600 feet. Horses and mules didn’t mind the uphill stretches — called “pulls’ by the drivers — even with heavy loads. But they didn’t like going downhill, and they would balk at “divides” — sudden low rises or ridges — in the road.

E.O. Sawyer, Jr. : “As the last of the caravan passed out of the deserted village, the only sound that could be heard, save for the creaking of the heavily laden wagons, was the howling of a dog in the doorway of his departing master’s home, refusing to leave.”

Sibimoat’s wagon and “blind” Leonardo Owlinguish’s dilapidated surrey, towed behind a baggage wagon, brought up the rear. Ninety-five year old Leonardo, who could remember the missions and the coming of the Americans, Manuella Sibimoat, and at least three other Cupeño were in their 90s, and Leonardo’s wife, Isabella Chapurosa Owlinguish, was 83 — a testament to the hot springs they’d been forced to leave.

A small herd of cattle and horses, driven by Cupeño boys, trailed behind the caravan.

They stopped for lunch at Puerta la Cruz, about eight miles north of Kupa, where Luiseños evicted from the village joined the wagon train. Puerta la Cruz was the northern entrance to Warner’s Ranch. Many Cupeño lingered, writes Phil Brigandi, “as though loth to go through the gate.”

The original plan was to spend the night at Aguanga. But the livestock lagged so far behind, they camped at Oak Grove. The herd didn’t reach the bowl-shaped valley until around midnight.

Thirteen miles northwest of Kupa, Oak Grove had an old Butterfield Stage station house: a long, one-story building surrounded by live oaks. Teamster foreman Giddings offered the natives government rations: flour, potatoes, and onions. This was a first, and an insult: the self-sufficient Cupeño had never received charity and refused. Some feared the rations might be poisoned.

During the meal, Inspector Jenkins’s head count totaled 97. Manuella Sibimoat was missing. When a Union reporter asked why the old woman would flee, Isabella Owlinguish said that when she and Manuella were young, they were held prisoners at Pala. “It was a revolting story,” wrote the reporter, “like a tale out of the middle ages.”

After she spoke, Isabella “threw off her shawl and shouted ‘see!’ and showed great calloused marks on her thin shoulders. ‘These we had to keep fresh our memories of Pala mission! What we suffered there how many years ago I cannot say, fifty, sixty, maybe more. Bearfoot could not forget. She would not look again upon that place… Does the white man think it strange that we did not want to come?’”

As natives warmed themselves by campfires below the old station house, they heard the cries of a newborn baby: Celsa Apapas gave birth to a son. She named him James Edward Jenkins Apapas after the inspector. They also heard music, hoots, and hollers down the way: the “belles and beaux of 15 miles around” [Union] were having a dance at the Oak Grove schoolhouse — on a Tuesday night.

The next morning, they broke camp before sunrise. The road became straighter with fewer divides. Stretched about a mile long, the train stopped at Dripping Springs for lunch. The Cupeño had lost sight of Eagle’s Nest and Rabbit House. From now on, said Roscinda, “they did not look back again.”

They camped Wednesday night at Pauba Ranch, 40 miles from Warner Springs, 12 from Pala.

Inspector Jenkins bought a steer. The families and teamsters divided and broiled 450 pounds of meat. “Indians came around where the beef was slaughtered and carried away every portion of the refuse except the horns and hoofs” (Herald).

Members of the Pechanga tribe greeted the exiles with baskets of oranges. An oral tradition persists that sheriff’s officers rounded up the visitors and herded them into a corral for the night. The Pechanga were ousted from their lands 30 years before. Officials feared they and the Cupeño might revolt.

The next day, Jenkins changed the route to Pala to avoid the Pechanga reservation. The heavy wagons trekked up Rainbow Canyon Road and down Rice Canyon grade to the Old Pala Road. They followed the San Luis Rey River east. Around 10:00 a.m., just as the morning fog began to lift, the first wagons halted near a barley field facing San Antonio de Pala. Clusters of reporters stood by, waiting for the unpacking to begin.

“Why do we stop here?” asked one of the first to arrive.

“For lunch,” said another.

“No” said John Brown. “This is Pala; there is the river, there is the mission.”

Whispers of “Pala! Pala!” bounded from wagon to wagon down the line.

The Pala reservation, created in 1875, lies in a semi-arid valley, where the San Luis Rey River runs amid scrub and sage, live oak, and sycamore. When the Cupeño arrived, approximately 15 Luiseño families lived south of the river in allotments. While some reporters claimed that the Luiseño greeted the Cupeño openly, others said they were “not overly welcoming,” and had been caught by surprise when wagons from another tribe made camp north of their river. Stephen Karr: “for some it meant to live among traditional enemies. Although they never faced expulsion, there remained little consolation in that fact.”

Wary women wouldn’t leave the wagons, even after the horses and mules had been picketed in the high grass. Others, writes Sawyer, “squatted near their wagons as if it were a temporary camp they were making, but would soon return to beloved Agua Caliente, the Warner’s Ranch home.”

“Coming here to Pala,” Roscinda remembered, “nothing but willows it was. There were many fleas here, and the people from Kupa did not know about fleas. The people did not know anything like this.”

The mountains were wrong. Where was cone-shaped Eagle’s Nest? Where the medicine rock? Where the herbs? They saw plenty of chia, a good sign, but Pala had coastal live oak acorns, not the good ones — the bellota — at Kupa.

And the water was cold.

There were no houses, as expected, just piles of 40 to 45 white canvas “duck” tents on an uncleared area. Joseph Schirmer, who hid under a blanket in a wagon to cover the event for the Riverside Daily Press, wrote: “Next to no preparation had been made for the reception and comfort of the new arrivals.”

“A single word of discouragement, or an unkind act,” attorney Brown told a reporter, “and they would be off and away and then no agents of the government could bring them back. They were homesick.”

Sibimoat arrived last, around noon. He, Salvador Nolasquez, Cecilio Blacktooth, Ambrosio Ortega, and Domingo Moro “began a powwow which might have ended in the Indians deciding to turn renegade and go to the hills” (Herald).

Brown suggested they inspect the river. They tasted the water and tested the flow and declared them “muy bueno.” “It may be that the river has its course near Agua Caliente,” writes Sawyer, “but the Indians would not say. The land was fertile, its surroundings picturesque, but it was not home.”

On their first Sunday at Pala, May 17, a Luiseño priest invited them to worship in the chapel, but Ambrosio Ortega said no. “What kind of god is this you ask to worship who deserts us when we need him most?”

The next day, the people raised a flag at the little schoolhouse. In the coming weeks, more natives trailed into the encampment, including Manuella Sibimoat, which brought the number to around 200. Although uncounted members of the five evicted villages fled to other reservations, some saw — or wished to see — the flag-raising as a sign of acceptance. But new problems arose.

“Many of the people became sick,” says Roscinda. “We were never sick [at Kupa] because we were bathing in the hot springs every day.”

A boy died. The Luiseño denied permission to bury him in the cemetery. For their burial ground, the Cupeño chose a field to the northeast, almost the same distance from the cemetery to the village at Kupa — and far from “the graves of strangers.”

Until June 13, the government gave all Cupeño males 50 pounds of flour every two weeks. On the 13th, single males only received 25. Another insult: Sibimoat fought back. He called a strike. “If the quota were accepted,” writes George Harwood Phillips, “‘what would prevent the government from again cutting their supplies sometime in the future,’ they asked.” The men ceased chopping hay, digging ditches, cementing irrigation canals. Six days later, a lawyer from Los Angeles negotiated a settlement.

The Cupeño wanted to build adobe brick or sturdy wooden structures for themselves. Instead, the government shipped Drucker Patent Portable Houses: two rooms with board and batten walls and tar-papered roof. The thin, drafty, pre-fab structures didn’t come until the fall.

On May 15, 1903, the day after the arrival at Pala, the Los Angeles Herald published an editorial: “The springs proved the Indians’ undoing. White men wanted them, and now, after years of impatient waiting, they have possession. No matter the legal aspect of the case, the act is deplorable. It is one of the saddest sequels to the white man’s first notice to the [natives] on the Atlantic coast to move on. They have been moving on ever since.”

Two weeks later, Grant Wallace wrote, “Many of the older people were still ‘muy triste....’ Every other tent or brush ramada was still a ‘house of tears,’ for their love of home is stronger than with us.”

Quotations

  1. Gordon Johnson: “Once this had been our land, where we birthed our children, prayed to our Creator, suffered our injuries, celebrated our triumphs, and died our quiet deaths.”
  2. Unnamed Cupeño woman, Los Angeles Herald: “Lummis told us we had to go. We told him we would not, so he said that he would bring soldiers and make us, which made us very angry for we are civilized and will not be treated otherwise.”
  3. William Pink: “To us there is not an ending to the story but always a hope that home will be ours once again.”

Part one | Part two | Part three

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powerful story, powerful story telling -- thank you

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